The Belton Conversation Piece

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The painting by Philippe Mercier known as The Belton Conversation-piece ((Pl 1) has long been identified as one of the earliest known surviving examples of that quintessentially 18th-century British genre. It can be attributed to the years 1725 or 1726, for reasons that will be examined. But hitherto little more of substance could have been said about it. Now, however, recent archival discoveries in Lincoln and at Kew have made it possible to learn significantly more about this picture. The painting can be seen as a record, a portrayal of a very selective part of the Brownlow family of Belton House, a part that closely tallies with one side of a complex legal action. The action was brought by just those members of the immediate family who were left out of the painting.

Philippe Mercier was a Huguenot artist born in Berlin in 1691 who died in London in 1760, having come to London probably as early as 1716 but certainly by 1719, when he was married at St Martin's in the Fields, London. (1) The picture is signed but not dated. Painted in oil on canvas, it measures 61 by 74 cms and depicts an affluent group of individuals wearing contemporary dress, at leisure in an outdoor environment. On the left is the owner of Belton House and the probable commissioner of the painting, Sir John Brownlow, born in 1690, 5th Baronet of Humby, who was in 1718 created Baron Charleville and Viscount Tyrconnel, both in the peerage of Ireland. He is shown wearing the sash and star of the Order of the Bath, an ancient but dormant order of knighthood which was revived in 1725, the year of his appointment to the order. The fact that he had been granted Irish titles, which did not carry the right to a place in the House of Lords at Westminster but allowed him to retain his seat in the Commons, was of some importance at the time; his investiture as a Knight of the Bath, together with the investiture of the other Irish peer, was delayed by one day at the behest of the British peers and their sons forming the majority of the new members of the order. The British peers insisted on the demonstration of their precedence in this way.

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On the extreme right of the composition is his only brother, William Brownlow, who died unmarried in July 1726; his death probably offers a terminus post quem for the dating of the painting, although the inclusion of a deceased member of the family in such a composition is not unknown. His position at the side might, for instance, indicate his separation from the world of the living; but the way his figure overlaps that of his neighbour and his direct look out at the viewer both contradict this suggestion. Also, in the case of posthumous representation, there is often some clear indication of the fact as, for example, in Hogarth's The Cholmondeley Family of 1732 (Houghton Hall, Norfolk, Marquess of Cholmondeley), where the angel hovering over the deceased Lady Malpas alerts the spectator to the anachronism. The use of William Brownlow as a repoussoir in the composition jointly with his brother, Lord Tyrconnel, suggests his actual presence, in body, not just in spirit. Midway between them is Lady Tyrconnel, seated on a fashionable small chariot pushed by her black servant.

These three main figures provide the dating of the composition: Tyrconnel received the order of the Bath in May 1725 and William Brownlow died in July 1726. Lady Tyrconnel died in 1730 after a protracted illness that had caused her husband to seek healthier English climes than that of central London. There is little sign of her invalid condition and no sign of her impending death in the picture, reinforcing the dating to 1725-6. The certainty of identification of the sitters is relevant. The identities of Lord and Lady Tyrconnel are considered firm. The naming of the other figures in the composition relies upon a 19th-century manuscript note by a Lady Brownlow in a family catalogue, the only alternative being provided in another manuscript catalogue by a later member of the family, dating from the beginning of the 20th century. …